Call for Action in Sea Dispute

Posted on August 9, 2012

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Protesters hold up a Vietnamese flag (L) while others shout slogans against Beijing over the South China Sea dispute in Hanoi on August 5, 2012.

An open letter to the Vietnamese government says a law claiming sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea does not go far enough.

Vietnam’s intellectual community has sent a third open letter to the country’s top officials and lawmakers asking them to do more to secure islands in the disputed South China Sea than the recent adoption of a law placing them under Vietnamese sovereignty.

The open letter, dated Aug. 6 and signed by 71 scholars, also called for the fair treatment of Vietnamese dissidents, many of whom have been detained by authorities during a series of rare nationalist protests in the one-party communist state against Chinese claims over the South China Sea.

The intellectuals lauded Vietnam’s National Assembly, or parliament, for passing the June 21 Maritime Law claiming the Spratly and Paracel islands, but called on the government and lawmakers to do more to act on the legislation.

“We welcome and highly appreciate the Maritime Law adopted by National Assembly,” the letter read. “The law provides a legal basis for the State and people to protect, manage, develop and cooperate in Vietnam’s territorial waters in accordance with international law.”

But they pointed out that two previous open letters they had sent to the government, dated July 10 and Sept. 8 of 2011, had predicted China’s actions in the disputed sea, and called on officials to take further steps to ensure Vietnam’s sovereignty over its territorial claims.

Beijing has since detained a number of Vietnamese fishermen in disputed waters and more recently announced the opening of nine oil and gas lots for international bidders in areas that overlap existing Vietnamese exploration blocks.

Just weeks ago, on July 24, Beijing established the tiny city of Sansha and a new military garrison in the disputed Paracel island chain, 350 kilometers (220 miles) from its southernmost province, in a bold bid to administer the vast South China Sea and assert control over disputed and potentially oil-rich islands in the area.

The move drew admonitions from the U.S. State Department last week, which accused Beijing of risking an escalation in tensions. The Chinese foreign ministry responded by summoning the number two at the U.S. Embassy in China over the weekend to protest against the statement.

Meanwhile, anti-China demonstrations have been staged weekly by Vietnam’s nationalist and vocal dissident community under the watchful eyes of the police.

But on Sunday, Vietnamese police detained up to 50 people as they broke up a protest in Hanoi held in response to news of the establishment of the Chinese city and garrison.

The arrests took place before and during the protest, the fourth such rally in just over a month. There were no arrests at the previous three.

Vietnam’s heavy-handed response to the protests also drew concern from the 71 intellectuals in their open letter to the government.

“What can be done immediately to prove the will of [government] political reform, according to the people’s wishes, is the end of repression, arbitrary accusation of patriotic protesters, and the release of detained dissidents and prisoners who have only publicly expressed their political viewpoints,” the letter read.

At least four prominent bloggers and one elderly activist were held for participating in the latest rally, according to the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, which said Vietnam is “trampling on its commitments to respect civil and political rights guaranteed by international human rights treaties ratified by the government.”

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